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'Beatriz at Dinner' invites an examination of racism in polite society

Salma Hayek in
Salma Hayek in "Beatriz at Dinner"
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

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If people still went to video stores, the new dramedy "Beatriz at Dinner," written by Mike White and directed by Miguel Arteta, would not be found in the same section as Jordan Peele's thriller, "Get Out."

That is, unless that video store had a section for depictions of casual racism in seemingly polite society. 

Set at a dinner party in a gated and gilded mega mansion in Southern California, "Beatriz At Dinner" uses its seven characters to unpack micro-aggressions, racist and classist assumptions, and violence against animals and the planet.  It's a subtle satire.

Salma Hayek (back to camera) in background (L-R) David Warshofsky, Connie Britton, John Lithgow, Amy Landecker, Chloë Sevigny, and Jay Duplass in
Salma Hayek (back to camera) in background (L-R) David Warshofsky, Connie Britton, John Lithgow, Amy Landecker, Chloë Sevigny, and Jay Duplass in "Beatriz at Dinner."
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Arteta told The Frame: "With this kind of storyline the satire could go over the top very quickly, with wealthy right-wing people being horrible. You had to be very careful to just represent them in a way that you could relate to them."

The guest of honor at the dinner party is played by John Lithgow — a real estate mogul who the other characters fawn over. They’re celebrating a business deal that could enrich them all.  He talks of the spiritual thrill of big-game hunting.

John Lithgow in
John Lithgow in "Beatriz at Dinner"
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

It's easy to draw comparisons between the Lithgow's character and Donald Trump. But White and Arteta see how the two men diverge: 

Mike White: The character that Lithgow plays, I guess people see some connection to Trump. But I think Trump is way more of an extreme exaggeration than John Lithgow, who's doing an extreme version of something, but it's not as extreme as reality.

Miguel Arteta: Yeah, and the way that Lithgow plays the character, he really believes, he has convictions. He's fully at peace, unapologetic. And I think he actually means it and feels like he has integrity, which is, I think, different perhaps than the man who's sitting in the White House.

Beatriz is played by Salma Hayek. She's a Mexican immigrant who's grilled by the Lithgow character on whether she came to the United States illegally. In one scene, he assumes she's at the dinner party as a maid when, in fact, she was a last minute invited guest. Beatriz is actually a massage therapist and healer who has worked with the host family for years.

Salma Hayek in
Salma Hayek in "Beatriz at Dinner"
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Of that scene in the movie, Arteta says that different audiences respond in different ways:

I saw the movie with a Latino audience and it's very interesting how people take that [scene] in particular. You know, the room does gasp when that happens. And when you watch it with a mostly Anglo audience, the room laughs. So I think it's, you know ... it seems ludicrous but it actually does happen.

As a Puerto Rican who grew up in Latin America and the Boston area, Arteta says that the kind of racism directed at the Hayek character is familiar to him:  

Racism is really insidious and that's something that I have experienced and that's something the screenplay explores in an interesting way. I remember being in college and going to parties and having this woman, who was the hostess, always asking me to take the trash out at the end of the day. And my handsome white roommate never got asked. And she was the nicest most liberal person in the world. And I don't think she had any awareness that ... 

WHITE: Name names!

ARTETA: Okay. [laughs] But I mean it happens again, even in Hollywood. For "The Good Girl," I was about to give an award to Jennifer Aniston at the Hollywood Film Festival. And in the green room I had a big star come and ask me, "Would you go get me a Tequila Sunrise, please?" The people from [Fox Searchlight Pictures] had to [say], "No, no, no, I'm sorry, mister ... he's a presenter."

"Beatriz at Dinner" director Miguel Arteta (left) and screenwriter Mike White flank The Frame's John Horn.

Mike White brought some of his own life to the film as well, namely by using his experience growing up alongside affluent families in Pasadena:

I always felt like some of the casual racism that was in the movie was very front-and-center, I felt, growing up. People tend to feel like if you write characters that are slightly racist, or say the kinds of things that people say in the movie, that you're mean-spirited as a writer or something. And it's like, well ... it's way worse than that. Sometimes I feel like people pull their punches with that kind of thing. And I wanted to write something that just went for some of that kind of "Upstairs, Downstairs" [sensibility], but from a sort of race and class perspective, I guess.

White and Arteta have collaborated on other projects featuring female leads, namely "The Good Girl" with Jennifer Aniston, and the HBO series, "Enlightened," with Laura Dern. But for "Beatriz at Dinner," White says they had a hard time securing financing: 

Just know that everyone in town passed on this script, [even] with Salma and the cast. We went down from the top tier financiers to people who are like Kazakhstani money — and those people  didn't want it! Nobody wanted to touch this movie.

ARTETA: They would be like, Can you bring me a Tequila Sunrise, please? [laughs] No, it actually has a lot to do with their thinking that a movie about this Latina, that has a dark ending ... nobody's going to want to see it.

WHITE: Just start there: that it is about a Latina woman as the protagonist who takes you into the story. I had another movie I just made that has a male, straight, white protagonist as the center and it's just as odd in its own way. And it's just as, I think, complex narratively. But it was so much easier to find the money to get that movie ... Salma Hayek, arguably, is a huge star. But it's just is the world that we live in.

To hear John Horn's conversation with Mike White and Miguel Arteta, click the play button at the top of the page. 

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